Chilean Sea Bass: Don't Be Duped


Photo by star5112/FlickrCC

A well-intentioned friend and excellent cook put miso-marinated "wild bass from Patagonia" before me recently, the fourth of many small courses lovingly prepared in honor of the New Year. I must have gasped. (I always think of myself as having a poker face, but apparently that isn't true.)

"The counter guy said that species had come back and was sustainable," my friend offered, aware of my views on seafood choices. He had been the victim of a too-common con. Some fishmongers and others throughout the seafood supply chain use masked names to obscure obviously "red-listed" items. "Bass from Patagonia" doesn't show up on any of the wallet cards as such. Chilean sea bass, however, does, and for good reason.

Continuing to serve unsustainable species would threaten the variety of flavors we might be able to serve in the future.

Patagonian toothfish, its other market name, is a deep-water fish that was unknown to humankind until modern technology and awesome-sized fishing vessels were able to bring it to market. Its great taste and low price—when it was abundant—made it popular. Today, it is neither abundant nor inexpensive. (One small fishery in the South Georgia Sea is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as having responsible fishing practices, but the vast majority of Patagonian toothfish available in the U.S. isn't from that fishery, and much is harvested illegally.)

I hadn't eaten Chilean sea bass in years. To eat or not to eat, that was the question of the moment and one I ask myself frequently, as I am a picky eater. I love food—really I do—but I can be a pain for someone to cook for because I observe so many rules (no meat, only certain seafood varieties, no bottled water or fruit out of season, and other peculiarities). There's nothing less sustainable, however, than wasted food, so I ate the four ounces of toothfish. And in the hands of a skilled cook, it was very good.

The experience brought me back to one of my first responsibilities when I joined Bon Appetit Management Company in 2005. My job was to make the business case for sustainable seafood to culinary directors of our sister companies. Our company (one of ten subsidiaries) had eliminated all "red-listed" species as far back as 2002 and maintained adherence to Seafood Watch standards in our 400+ cafes since then. Couldn't they adopt a comprehensive policy too?

The argument focused on three issues: cost, product availability, and taste.

Inherently—but contrary to popular perception—sustainable wild seafood can be less expensive when compared to the species marine scientists regard as unsustainable. "Sustainability" is evaluated on many criteria, including abundance and ability to reproduce within a fishery. When a commodity gets scarce—due to over-fishing or habitat destruction—prices go up, assuming the same level of demand. Chilean sea bass used to be eight dollars per pound. Now it's hard to find for under 25. Of course it's also true that poorly-farmed species can be very inexpensive. That's where it takes guts for a company to undertake a meaningful policy and design the whole program as cost-neutral rather than take savings on lower-priced species and declare victory.

Product availability is a special challenge for chefs and restaurant companies. Persuading consumers to try unfamiliar seafood is an art. Arranging for those species to be stocked in 2,000-pound quantities in 40 distribution locations each month is a supply chain tour de force.

And then there is the issue of taste. Continuing to serve unsustainable species would threaten the variety of flavors we might be able to serve in the future, I argued. We offered our colleagues the Chart of Culinary Alternatives to make our flavor case, a document we helped write. It is designed to suggest substitutes for popular "red-listed" species to avoid. But are they really culinary alternatives? For years I've suggested sablefish (which is also known as butterfish or black cod, depending on the region) as a reasonable culinary substitute for Chilean sea bass. It's also better priced, typically retailing around 16 dollars per pound. After making the argument, I've been enjoying sablefish for years, but I hadn't tasted sea bass in years. Did they really compare?

Chilean sea bass tastes remarkably like black cod! It was satisfying to realize that my standard had become the sustainable option, not the other way around. The sea bass is slightly sweeter. Both take well to miso marinade and are flaky and soft though not firm like a cod. And with sustainable options, flavor seems to be in abundant supply.